What Christine Byl can’t not do

“Don’t write unless you can’t not write,” scholar Elie Wiesel once instructed writers. Christine Byl, winner of Glimmer Train‘s Short-Story Award for New Writers in 1998, has no problem with that. “Everybody has something they can’t not do, and you should figure out what it is,” Byl says. “If it’s not writing, that’s fine; if it is writing, that’s great. It may be opera, or carpentry, or baseball. But whatever it is that you can’t not do, do it honestly.”

Byl has been writing honestly since high school, where she first began paying attention to the details of craft. But unlike many young writers, Byl’s writing training did not take place primarily in the classroom. She majored in English and philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and although she had many teachers who encouraged her “scribbling,” she took no writing classes. However, the best version of “Bloom,” Byl’s winning story, came from a class she took with writer Bill Kittredge two years ago.

“It was a horrible first draft,” says Byl of the story. “It was totally ridiculous. It was the wrong tense, it was the wrong tone, the narrator was nauseatingly clever. There was a lot of good material, but it was a very bad draft.” After two years of occasionally revisiting the story, Byl found the problem — “The key was definitely getting the first-person narration right.” Then, eventually, she got the courage to send “Bloom” into the world.

Byl, who admits there was “always an easy excuse” for not submitting her work, hadn’t intended to enter the contest. She was beginning to submit to journals for the first time, following a friend’s suggestion to choose 50 journals, tier them in groups of 10, and submit 10 manuscripts at a time until she’d gotten through all 50. “I decided I would burn the story if it was rejected from all 50 places,” Byl says.

She didn’t have to worry. Glimmer Train was included in the top group of journals, and Byl sent the story as a regular submission. When she realized that “Bloom” fit the contest’s guidelines, she sent in her entry fee. “It was such a strange feeling,” Byl says of winning. “Really bizarre. I still feel a little bit like the emperor with the new clothes, like I’m really a fraud but no one’s noticed yet.” But she also says winning has made her feel validated and more confident, tempering some of the insecurity that had made her reluctant to submit her stories.

Though she may have been reluctant to submit her work, Byl has never been reluctant to write. Interviews, nonfiction and personal essay are among her writing interests, and although several of her nonfiction pieces have been published, fiction is Byl’s first love. “Fiction can contain both nonfiction and poetry,” she says. “I think fiction’s a lot of fun; I love making stuff up and still having it be true.” Her story ideas come from a variety of sources. “I really operate phonetically a lot of the time,” she says. “A phrase — and this is the poetry part of fiction for me — just occurs to me, or a way of articulating something I have experienced. A lot of times a story will begin from that kind of experience, just a flash, not even an image. It may be just a group of words that sound great together.”

Although she is dedicated to her craft, Byl does not have a fixed writing schedule. In fact, much of her writing takes place away from the computer, partly because she spends her summers working trails in the back country of Glacier National Park in northern Montana. She explains: “I think about plots when I’m hiking, I talk dialogue out loud when I’m alone, I watch people all the time, and a lot of that I consider my prewriting. By the time I sit down, I’ve done drafts and drafts and drafts in my head.” There are some months, however, when she writes every day if time allows, and freewriting in her journal always plays a role in a project’s development.

However, when Kittredge cautioned his students not to write too much, Byl listened. “Do other stuff,” she says. “Climb trees, talk to kids, run a marathon, plant a garden. If writing is your whole life, your life will be boring, and your writing will be boring, too. Don’t get so bogged down in being a writer that all you’re doing is writing.” Byl admits she reads “almost addictively, everything from Cheerios boxes to old Time magazines to the Russian masters,” and her favorite writers include Wendell Berry, James Galvin, Wallace Stegner and Flannery O’Connor. When she’s not reading, Byl enjoys rock climbing, live music and being outdoors.

Winning the Glimmer Train award has made Byl optimistic but practical about her next steps. “It’s great to be able to say something in my cover letter besides ‘I’ve never been published before,’ ” she says, and she defines herself as a writer when people ask her what she does away from the trails. Her current projects include a novel (“But it’s probably working on me more than I’m working on it,” she says) and several short stories, as well as ideas for a family memoir. “All those things are percolating,” she says. “We’ll have to see what comes of them.”

Byl’s success has not led her to treat writing casually, and she still struggles to balance the love/hate relationship that accompanies any art form. “A good part of the time writing is fun — it makes me feel alive and vibrating,” she says. “But sometimes I hate it; I wish I didn’t have to write, I wish these crazy characters would leave me alone. Then I feel wired and trapped and kind of nuts. You have to get past the intense highs and lows to just keep on doing it.” But Byl knows firsthand that the rewards of writing are definitely within reach and worth the effort.

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